Obituary: Death of Shirley Fretz, 18-year Missionary in Sierra Leone

Three former Sierra Leone missionaries from Grace UB church. L-r: Audrey Fiederlein, Kathy Jones, and Shirley Fretz

Shirley Fretz, who served 18 years as a United Brethren missionary in Sierra Leone 1967-1985, passed away Wednesday, September 26, 2018. She had suffered from Huntingtons Disease during the last several years.

Funeral time: 1pm on Saturday, October 6, 2018.
Funeral location: Grace UB church, Sherkston, Ontario

Shirley Fretz

During her 18 years in Africa, Shirley received a letter from her mother nearly every week. The letters often arrived three or four at a time. “She was very happy when I became a missionary,” Shirley said of her mother. “She had been praying for Sierra Leone before I was even born. Tears came every time I left for Africa, but she knew the Lord wanted me there.”

Shirley grew up at Grace UB church in Sherkston, Ontario, a church that has produced a number of missionaries over the years. She dreamed of being a missionary like Olive Weaver and Ruth Benner, two women from the church who were then serving in Sierra Leone. Shirley spent ten years working for law firms, but couldn’t get missions out of her mind. She eventually responded to an altar call by Bishop Clyde W. Meadows, a call to serve Christ wherever God wanted.

Before she knew it, she was contacted by the UB missions office. They needed someone to oversee the Minnie Mull boarding home in Sierra Leone. Was she interested?

Shirley arrived at Minnie Mull in April 1967. The school had over 400 primary-age girls with 104 staying in the boarding home. Shirley procured supplies, kept financial records, helped supervise cooking and laundry, counseled children, and generally served as a mother to over 100 youngsters.

Her second term, which began in August 1971, found her in a whole new role: business manager of Mattru Hospital. She spent the next ten years handling the payroll, bookkeeping, banking, and other non-medical responsibilities. After the 1974 arrival of Dr. Ron Baker, Shirley watched Mattru develop into a thriving hospital.

Shirley decided the hospital needed a male administrator, especially since the culture favored having men in supervisory positions. So after her 1981 furlough, she moved to Bumpe and spent two terms working in Christian education. For four years, she devoted much of her time to the Bumpe Primary School children. After school, kids walked to her house for Bible classes, and she often provided one-on-one spiritual counsel. Later, her job was placed under the direction of the national church’s Christian Education Department. They held clinics and workshops in various districts, helped with the camping program, and emphasized Christian Endeavor.

During her furlough in 1983, Shirley had a difficult decision to make. Her father had been hospitalized with cancer almost continuously since July 1982. Should she stay home and await his death, or return to Sierra Leone in December as scheduled?

Shirley later recalled, “My dad was very alert right up to the end. He knew exactly what was going on, and I’m sure that if I had visited him the day I was supposed to leave for Africa, he’d have said, ‘What happened? Why didn’t you go?’ I knew he would be gone soon, and it would be good for me to be there, but you can’t just stay home and wait for something to happen.” She left at the end of November and arrived in Bumpe on December 6, 1983. The next day she received a telegram saying her father had passed away on December 6.

Bishop Jerry Datema was in Sierra Leone at the time for annual conference. He led a memorial service at the Bumpe church the same day as the memorial service back in Canada. The church was full of people — they didn’t know Shirley’s father, but they knew Shirley. The Bumpe primary children sang a couple of her father’s favorite songs, and then Bishop Datema preached. Shirley said, “It was almost like being home for the funeral.”

Although Shirley fully supported the 1985 nationalization process, it brought an end to her position. Everyone knew Shirley was leaving the country—this time for good —on Monday, August 19. The stream of constant good-byes began on Saturday. “I must have had 50 people visit my house between Saturday afternoon and Monday morning. To Sierra Leoneans, people are important. When they know you are leaving, everybody wants to come and spend time with you. It was rather hard saying good-bye to all the people I had grown close to during my 18 years there, knowing I might not see them again.”

Wanting to remain in some kind of mission work, in December 1985 Shirley became receptionist-bookkeeper for the Brethren in Christ mission office in Stevensville, Ontario.

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